A simple breakdown of the process, the experience, and the Dream itself


One could think of the United States of America as a prestigious private school. Many say it guarantees you a better situation, it’s incredibly hard to get into, and it comes with a price. As of November 2021, there are a total of 46.2 million immigrants in the United States. That’s about 14.2% of the country, the highest it’s been recorded in over 100 years. 

So, are each of these 46.2 million individuals currently thriving and living the American Dream? Obviously not. How are they living? What did it take from them to get here? And is the American Dream a real thing at all?

. . .

The Process

Immigrating to the United States is a disaster for many. More specifically, it takes a lot of time. Even with no country backlog, the average processing time is approximately 1.5 to 3 years. Immigrants from Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines have faced wait times of more than 20 years. And in 2018, the average immigrant in a preference category waited about 6 years. 

The process is almost always long and difficult, and can be broken down into two “waiting phases.” The first is the time it takes for the government to process petitions and applications — this one is more predictable depending on the specific process. The second is the one caused by the unavailability of green cards due to quotas. The immigration categories with quotas and waiting lists are called “preference categories” — this essentially means that countries “take turns” on who is allowed into the U.S.; which although good in some ways can cause incredibly long wait times. 

An example of this is the preference category for Mexican-born siblings of U.S. citizens, who were finally allowed to apply for a green card in October 2018 after being restricted in January 1998. That’s about two decades just for the chance at application. 

As for refugees, the asylum process is unpredictable and typically takes between 6 months to several years. In 2018, the average wait time before a refugee hearing was 721 days. 

From almost every angle, the immigration process is long, difficult, and painful. But what happens once people finally make it past the border?

The Experience

You’ve heard “immigrants, we get the job done” from the popular American musical Hamilton and the posters and framed quotes that followed. And it’s not inaccurate. In 2018, immigrants made up about 13% of the US population, but immigrant entrepreneurs created around 25%  of new companies. A study from 2015 shows us that immigrants are about 17% more likely to work overtime and 25% more likely to work weekends. 

Immigrants are no stranger to hard work and sacrifice, yet they’re unfortunately also familiar with ridiculous comments like “immigrants are taking away jobs.” This is simply untrue. In fact, immigrants are creating more jobs than they are taking. In addition to those 25% of new companies in 2018, over 40% of the Fortune 500 firms in 2010 had at least one immigrant or first-generation founder. Immigrants continue to show time and time again the ways they improve our country and achieve great things. I mean, isn’t that part of the American Dream after all? 

The Dream

“The American Dream” is defined as the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved. That all sounds good… but it also sounds pretty subjective. 

It’s easy to get lost in the tons and tons of opinion pieces on the American Dream. Some say it’s dead, others say it is all materialistic and rooted in capitalism, some say it’s a made-up notion, some say it has to do with happiness, and some people even have charts that show what places in the U.S. have the highest rates of achieving it! So if there are different versions of the American Dream in every person’s head, is it real at all?

In 2018, the University of Chicago ran a study (outlined here) that surveyed a nationally representative sample of Americans about their attitudes toward community and society. When Americans were asked what makes the American Dream a reality, the predicted factors of becoming wealthy, owning a home, or having a successful career weren’t actually selected. Instead, 85% indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential to achieving the American Dream. 83% indicated that “a good family life” was essential. This once again shows us that The American Dream is something different to each and every immigrant, but is still rooted in freedom and happiness

So, is the American Dream real? I think yes. Because whether you’re a rich business person moving abroad or a refugee forced to flee your home, each immigrant comes with their own story and their own dream, one that is passed down generations and is lived by every day by people like you and me.

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Ariana Bhargava is a high school student based in Massachusetts. She writes for Reclamation and Brown Girl Magazine and is passionate about storytelling, activism, and photography.